In New Brunswick, Sweeney Sees Seeds of a Solution to Atlantic City’s Problems

Senate president celebrates New Brunswick’s building boom, sees redevelopment corporation and public-private initiatives as essential to success

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney visiting a construction site in New Brunswick.
On the same day that Gov. Chris Christie was in Atlantic City to celebrate the opening of a major new retail store, Senate President Stephen Sweeney was 100 miles north touring construction sites in New Brunswick.

Yet Atlantic City was squarely on Sweeney’s mind as he walked through New Brunswick’s downtown, which is benefitting from a building boom in recent years that’s been credited, at least in part, to the efforts of the nonprofit New Brunswick Development Corp.

The New Brunswick model offers hope for Atlantic City, said Sweeney (D-Gloucester), after thousands of jobs have been lost to recent casino closures and other economic problems.

“We’re in a crisis right now, but a fixable one,” he said.

The connection between New Brunswick and Atlantic City was also made last year by the commission Christie has tasked with coming up with ways to revive the latter amid the economic problems. One of its recommendations was to utilize more public-private partnerships and to bring on a nonprofit redevelopment company like New Brunswick’s to oversee the effort.

Such partnerships have provided New Brunswick with a new wellness center that’s serving everyone from students to seniors, the high-rise, mixed-use Gateway building, and new housing for Rutgers University honor students that’s still under construction. In all, since its inception in the 1970s, the New Brunswick Development Corp. has attracted an estimated $2 billion in investment.

One of its success stories is The Heldrich, an award-winning mixed-use building in downtown New Brunswick that houses a hotel, conference center, condominiums, and academic space. It opened in 2007 in what used to be, according to Chris Paladino, the president of the development corporation, a “really tough neighborhood.”

Rehabbing the adjacent 150-year-old Monument Park was also a part of the project, he said.

“We’re pretty proud of this thing,” Paladino said.

The key to such successes, he explained during the tour yesterday, is serving as “the honest broker bringing people together.”

The development company gets involved in everything from financing to leveraging federal and state grants, coordinating efforts that involve organizations like Rutgers, Johnson & Johnson, and the city itself.

New Brunswick Mayor Jim Cahill credited what he called a “teamwork” approach that helped get the city through the last recession.

“We ended up creating 6,500 new jobs here in the city of New Brunswick,” Cahill said. “It’s all a piece of the puzzle.”

And as younger people are now gravitating away from New Jersey’s suburbs to its walkable urban communities, Cahill said New Brunswick’s population has risen from 41,000 to 55,000 over the past 20 years.

Still, Atlantic City lacks a major university like Rutgers, although Galloway-based Stockton University is seeking to expand into the seaside resort, and a major rail station like New Brunswick’s, which is on the busy New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor line.

[related]But Paladino said Atlantic City has other strengths to work with, including the ocean, beaches, and an existing city grid. And he said he’s already started working with officials in Atlantic City, though neither he nor Sweeney would say yesterday what projects specifically are in the works.

For Sweeney, the key is getting the type of cooperation between the private sector and government that the New Brunswick Development Corp. has been able to foster over the years.

“We’re trying to show people that you can do this,” he said.

Yet right now, finding other areas of agreement when it comes to the Atlantic City recovery has been difficult.

Legislation sponsored by Sweeney that would aid Atlantic City and its remaining casinos, including by allowing them to make payments in lieu of taxes over a 15-year period, has stalled as lawmakers wait to see if Christie is willing to sign it.

And Christie has seated his own team of emergency managers to help guide city government through severe financial problems brought on by revenues losses tied to the casino closures, as wellas broader economic challenges. Atlantic City now has to compete for customers with new casinos that have opened in neighboring states like Pennsylvania and New York.

The emergency managers put forward a preliminary report last month that called for, among other things, layoffs and budget cuts. But Sweeney panned their work.

Christie, meanwhile, has also been promoting the need to diversify Atlantic City’s offerings away from just those focused on gamblers. Along those lines, he was in the resort yesterday evening — after spending part of the day in New Hampshire as he continues to explore running for U.S. president in 2016 — to celebrate the opening of a new Bass Pro Shops store.

The 85,000-square-foot store is the first location in New Jersey for Bass Pro Shops, a major retailer of hunting, fishing, and other outdoor gear.

And despite their disagreements on other parts of the Atlantic City recovery effort, Sweeney — like Christie — also talked yesterday in New Brunswick about the need to move the resort away from one centered only on gambling.

Developing public-private partnerships is one way to do that, and New Brunswick has proven the success of that model with its emphasis on mixed-use developments, Sweeney said.

“They’ve got pieces,” he said of Atlantic City. “That’s what people sell short.’